Last season, the New York Jets desperately wanted to be a team built to win now, but this season seem content with winning soon instead, and rightfully so. Jets fans should be excited about its new foundation and the prospects of watching a young, talented team begin to grow together and perhaps carry the team into the playoffs.
After a torrid start to begin the 2008 season, buoyed offensively by the threat of having a QB under center that could throw a football more than 20 yards and highlighted by an emotional defeat of the New England Patriots, the Jets fell victim to age and injuries in the second half. Inexperience and chemistry became major problems for the team in the final stretch, as derisive chatter began to filter from their locker room to the media and QB Brett Favre fought a biceps injury that limited the offense’s effectiveness. A talented yet inexperienced defensive unit could not pick up enough of the offense’s slack, and the Jets’ season of high-flying hopes spiraled back to earth, crashing and burning on the turf of Giants Stadium on the final Sunday of the season.
Major changes were on tap for the 2009 edition of the Jets and quickly came to pass after the devastating season ending loss to the Chad Pennington-led Miami Dolphins, chief among them being the hiring of former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan as the team’s new head coach and new mouthpiece. The team then followed last off-season’s spending spree with a relatively subdued signing period, with the biggest name on their list of targets being LB Bart Scott, who the team inked to a long term contract. Scott was a mainstay of the Ravens’ staunch defense whom Ryan hopes will bring leadership and intangibles to the roster, along with his 433 career tackles.
Other key additions to the roster come on the defensive side, as the team traded conditional draft picks to the Philadelphia Eagles for CB Lito Sheppard, signed S Jim Leonhard away from the Ravens and brought in 14 year veteran and Dolphins and Patriots mainstay Larry Izzo. Izzo is considered Special Teams royalty and should boost that unit for the Jets along with adding depth to the LB rotation in Ryan’s 3-4 and 46 defensive schemes.
While Sheppard is expected to team with ball-hawking Pro Bowlers CB Darelle Revis and S Kerry Rhodes in the Jets’ defensive backfield to shut down opposing passing attacks, his health has always been an obstacle to his potential. Leonhard is an undersized, and once undervalued, safety who found his niche in Ryan’s gritty defense in Baltimore and joined Scott in quickly reuniting with their former coach in New York. These moves should pay large dividends for the Jets on defense and special teams, adding depth, experience and talent to the Jets corps and providing the energy and rotation the team sorely lacked in the stretch run toward the playoffs last season.
The offense was certainly not ignored this off-season but most feel the attention it merits hasn’t yet been paid to it. The Jets did identify that the team no longer has interest in employing placeholder QBs and a vanilla, low-impact offensive approach, and desires strong performances, presence and leadership from the QB position and in doing so traded up in the first round of the draft to select USC QB Mark Sanchez to fill that void. Sanchez’ aptitude for the playbook and his relationships with teammates and the media this summer will go a long way to determining whether he is the franchise QB the Jets have been missing for almost their entire history.
The team is also in need of help at the WR position, having allowed top receiver Laveranues Coles to sign with the Bengals in free agency and doing nothing yet to upgrade that corp. The team continues to monitor the status of veteran stars Marvin Harrison and Plaxico Burress, and could bring either one in before the season begins to some effectiveness. However, there are weapons at the other positions in WRs Jerricho Cotchery, Brad Smith and Chansi Stuckey, while Dustin Keller should continue to develop into a solid pass catching TE and will have to after the team allowed incumbent Chris Baker leave via free agency.
Another developing plot heading into Jets voluntary camps that could have major ramifications on the upcoming season has been the vocal unhappiness of both running backs Leon Washington and Thomas Jones over their respective contract situations. While the team has been negotiating with Washington on a new contract and hefty raise from his rookie contract, Jones is moving into the tail-end of his contract, paying him far less than his previous two seasons and could find himself a salary cap casualty. Seemingly in anticipation of this situation, the Jets traded up in the third round of this year’s draft to select dynamic RB Shonn Greene out of the University of Iowa and it does not seem farfetched that Greene could become a backfield tandem with Washington, while the Jets part ways with Jones and free up cap space to fill other needs, such as WR. However, Coach Ryan witnessed the success a team can have employing three RBs with different styles last season in Baltimore and it is not out of the realm of possibility to think a Jones-Washington-Greene tandem could be devastating to NFL defenses and powerful support to a rookie starting QB.
The Jets offense is still a work in progress, but moving beyond the specter of Brett Favre should also prove to be a galvanizing source to many players in the locker room, whether they believe Favre’s arrival to be the driving force behind their Super Bowl hopes and 8-3 start in 2008, or they believe that 2009 should end better solely because of his absence. The defense and special teams units showed flashes of brilliance last year and kept the Jets in games that it might not have won otherwise, and should be vastly improved through their draft and free agent additions and new coaching philosophy.
One thing is certain- during this current building (not rebuilding) phase, team chemistry will be more critical to the Jets’ success than ever before. And if things work on the field as well as they seem to appear on paper, 2009 could prove a turning point in the direction of the franchise.